The murder investigation begins for MacKenzie and Scougall

The final of four extracts from Douglas Watt’s latest historical crime novel, A Killing in Van Dieman’s Land, featuring investigative advocate John MacKenzie and side-kick Davie Scougall, set in late 17th century Edinburgh.

Friday, 16th April 2021, 7:00 am
Douglas Watt

Chapter 2: The Body of a Merchant

Scougall was hard at work in the office and was annoyed by the presumption of MacKenzie’s request that he meet him. MacKenzie should know he no longer worked for himself. He had moved on to better things, having taken a position with Mrs Hair six months before as a senior writer. As a result, he was busier than he had ever been before and it was

difficult – indeed, impossible – for him to drop everything when he worked for someone else.

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A Killing in Van Dieman's Land

Mrs Hair’s business was expanding; property transactions reviving, trade finance growing strongly. Scougall was enjoying his new role. He relished meeting merchants to seal deals and was fascinated by the foreign trade. He loved to watch ships sailing from Leith. Despite having never been outside Scotland in his life, he had a longing to see the wider world and hoped to sail to Amsterdam or Barbados or the Indies one day.

First, however, he had to prove himself to Mrs Hair. He was sure she was pleased with his work so far. His maxim was to check every document he wrote three times: check, check and check, he would say to himself after completing a task, whether letter or bond. She had hinted he might travel to oversee her business soon. MacKenzie’s note therefore came as an unwanted irritation. But he could not deny his old friend. They had been through too much together over the years. Reluctantly, he excused himself for half an hour.

On the way up the High Street he thought about Chrissie. She was no longer Chrissie Munro, but miraculously transmogrified into Chrissie Scougall. The thought of seeing her at the end of the day banished his feeling of annoyance. His married status still amazed him and brought a smile to a face which usually wore a worried expression.

Many times over the years he had thought marriage beyond his grasp. But the small ceremony in Musselburgh had taken place in April, two months before, the Reverend Andrew Leitch officiating. He still could not get used to the idea of returning to a cosy apartment rather than his lonely room in Mrs Baird’s lodgings. He would have the company of a pretty woman all evening and all night. He thanked God for his good fortune and MacKenzie’s words at the ceremony came back to him: ‘Davie and I have survived a few scrapes

over the years. I’ve come to know him well. He’s a man of many qualities: brave, determined, indefatigable and he can drive a golf ball further than any lawyer in Edinburgh! He

will make a loyal and loving husband.’

Scougall’s irritation subsided. He spotted MacKenzie in the distance, a tall figure in a blue velvet coat and short wig, and for some reason thought of MacKenzie’s daughter, Elizabeth. He chastised himself – thinking of another woman was a sin. He was pleased for MacKenzie that she had returned home and there was a bairn at the Hawthorns, although the child was, unfortunately, the son of a Papist. Elizabeth had left her young husband buried at Blair, and she, at the age of 22, was a very eligible widow.

MacKenzie waved in greeting from the opening of Cockburn’s Wynd. ‘Ah, Davie! Thank you for coming’.

‘I’ve only a short while, sir. Mrs Hair does not like her writers disappearing on business unconcerned with her office’, Scougall stammered, unable to conceal his anxiety.

MacKenzie smiled, taking Scougall’s elbow and directing him into the vennel. ‘I quite understand, Davie. I’ll just take a little of your precious time. I know you’re busy and keen to make a favourable impression. I’ve something important to tell you.’ He waited for Scougall to give him his full attention before continuing. ‘I’ve had an offer from Dalrymple.’

‘An offer from Dalrymple?’ Scougall repeated looking confused.

‘He’s offered me a criminal case to investigate. He wants it sorted with little fuss. He’s too busy with parliamentary business.’

Scougall looked surprised. ‘What case, sir?’

‘A death in the house down there, Davie’, said MacKenzie, pointing down the vennel.

Scougall looked down the dark passageway at the black door.

‘Van Diemen’s Land’, added MacKenzie.

Scougall didn’t know what to say. He knew MacKenzie hated the new government, particularly Dalrymple. ‘What’s it to do with me? I don’t have time to assist you, sir. I’m too

busy with work.’

MacKenzie rummaged in his pocket and took out his pipe. He knocked it against the wall, briskly, and began to stuff it with fresh tobacco. ‘If you’ll allow me to explain, Davie. Jacob Kerr was found this morning in the kitchen. His body has been taken to the morgue. We should go there first.’

He took hold of Scougall’s sleeve and gently directed him back onto the High Street.

Scougall stopped in his tracks after a few steps, looking exasperated. ‘I’m too busy, sir. I don’t know if I can spare any time. I should let Mrs Hair know first. I can’t be long.’

MacKenzie took the cuff of Scougall’s jacket, encouraging him down the street. ‘We won’t be long, Davie. Tell Mrs Hair you were seeing me. You were maintaining good business

relations. I require a bond to purchase land in Ross-shire. She’ll be understanding, if there’s money in it.’

Scougall looked perturbed but hated displeasing anyone. He had no appetite for any case of murder. He had other things to think about, in particular his work and Chrissie. But he always found it difficult to refuse MacKenzie. ‘Twenty minutes and I’ll have to be back in the office...’

To continue reading A Killing in Van Dieman’s Land, by Douglas Watt, the novel is available from